Two Promises

Only two promises: no speeches and no snacks. In the improvisational spirit of ACMA (and C.E. Mason before that), this Friday we’re opening the doors to the Quonset Hut to welcome in any former students and staff from our school to connect with each other, tell stories, and take one last tour of campus before the wrecking crew arrives in July.


I understand the powerful connections folks have with our little school. Some places talk about school spirit; we talk about the profound power of love and art. This year, as I’ve had the pleasure capture some of the stories from ACMA’s past, I’ve been privileged to talk with more than a few former students and staff and without exception the memories they share (salty and sweet) buzz with emotion

20170930_110547Kreeya told me about walking through the doors of the old C.E. Mason school, past Mary’s front office, following the bend in the hall, past four or five Mona Lisa renditions, and arriving at the Tom Marsh Gallery. “The gallery was initially conceived as an homage to a favored teacher,” she said. “It also provided a creative use for a space that was essentially a storage unit for years. Students had almost total control of creative processes at our school.”

James reached out in the fall and said “for me personally, I believe that staff and group of peers are the only thing that kept me engaged enough to not just walk away from traditional high school and get my GED and/or burn my home high school down.”

Peter shared a video with me, smiling as he told me that as the story of ACMA got told, for sure Mr. Sikking’s performance of “Santa Baby” needed to be a part of that grand adventure.

screen shot 2018-10-30 at 10.03.11 amFriday I hope we’ll hear more of those stories.

And if we do, if alumni arrive willing to share meaningful memories, I think we’ll be ready. Some of our current student filmmakers will be on hand ready to commit those stories to film; my current yearbook staff, chroniclers of our school’s history, will be there to interview former students and staff; and we’ll do our best to give an opportunity to everyone who has a tale to tell.

I’ll do my best to have some photos and other artifacts on hand to help melt away the years, and depending on how many folks visit, I’ll host a few tours of the main building, so people can say their goodbyes to Mona Lisa, well, Mona Lisas to be more apt.

And if people can’t make it, not to worry; we’ll do our best to continue to celebrate our school and the stories that make up our history online as well as in person. We’re building an archive now, and look forward to sharing more as we dance toward the future together. No speeches. No snacks. Just spirit.


For anyone planning to attend our little gathering on Friday, February 1, 2019, we’ll open the Quonset Hut doors at 6PM. There’s no set program, so feel free to drop by any time before 8PM when we’ll call it a night (at least on campus; I’ll wager a few might adjourn to a coffee and conversation afterward).

The Box

We don’t know what’s in the box. 5½” by 8½” by 12”, metal, and welded shut, it has sat in the principal’s office for more than a decade. The story goes that it was unearthed behind a wall of the old C.E. Mason Elementary building when a heavy iron plaque was relocated years ago.


The box weighs six pounds, for my analytical friends, though this is ACMA, so I should probably simply say that it’s the color of winter wheat still soaked after a morning rain.

Rumor has it that the box is a time capsule, though from when no one seems to know.

Orestes Yambouranis, who was a teacher at Arts & Communication before it was an academy, remembered that the custodian, Will Templar, found it and gave to the principal. When, he couldn’t quite remember.

Knowing that the bulldozers and a wrecking ball are rumbling toward campus this summer, I dusted off the box and hope to gather together some students and open it in February. It’s 2019, so I think it would be fun to livestream. Who knows who might want in on a little ACMA adventure.

Until then, I’ll put it where people can take a look, maybe make a guess as to when it was put in the ground and what we might find inside. I can honestly say that even with the research I’ve been doing on ACMA and C.E. Mason, reaching back to the 1940s and its construction, I have no idea which group of Masonites or ACMAniacs filled this box and tucked it away.

Heck, I’m not even sure if it is a time capsule.

So if anyone reading this post has a memory of the box, please let me know! If anyone has a guess, or a dollop of curiosity, come back in a month or so and I’ll post what we find inside. Knowing our little school, it could be anything.

“Tear stained pictures of younger days…”

Well I felt so bad when I heard that song,
Ya know it’s been such a long long time,
It’s a little offbeat and it ain’t in tune ya know it’s just like this heart of mine…
-Exploding Hearts, 2003

screen shot 2018-12-14 at 1.14.12 pmJeremy used to sneak into Mr. Bennett’s film class to listen to records when he should have been somewhere else. “I would catch him, usually more than half way through a film class, sitting in the back of the room, headphones on, listening to my record collection,” Mr. B remembered. “He’d look up from The Dead Kennedys, The Talking Heads, Ray Charles, or Johnny Cash, hoping to stay.”

Adam skated. In addition to playing bass, like so many 1990s teenage boys, he rode his skateboard with the daredevil abandon of exuberant youth. Seeing clips of him, and a pack of other Masonites, skating is a lesson in fearless teenagerdom.

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screen shot 2018-12-14 at 1.13.26 pmMatt was the cool kid, the kid in the leather jacket with the sensitive heart. He was serious and deep. Not long after Matt left ACMA, Mr. Bennett recalled that he “bumped into him at Starbucks and we sat down and had a coffee. He told me all about the band and how they had gotten a positive review in Rolling Stone. He looked happy after so much time being less so. It was this really positive meeting and then he was gone.”

screen shot 2019-01-10 at 12.13.05 pmTerry graduated from ACMA in 2001, already a rock and roller, whose yearbook photo struck a pose that belonged on an album cover. “What was your preferred method for leaving campus early?” a yearbook editor posed him. “I’d just lay in the backseat of someone’s car who had early release,” he answered. Rock and roll.

They played in a band, actually a few bands, during their C.E. Mason years. The Iguanas, the Silver Kings, FU. Walk into Mr. Bennett’s classroom today and you’ll find a 45 record of the Iguana’s inscribed with a message from Jeremy on the wall.

But it was after their time at A&C that Jeremy Gage, Adam Cox, Matt Fitzgerald, and Terry Six made musical history as the band Exploding Hearts.

heartsLen Comaratta provides a brief history of the band in his 2011 “Dusting ‘Em Off” column, describing Exploding Hearts as “post-punk” and “power pop – pure, unabashed pop rock & roll, with catchy hooks and instantly memorable melodies.” Wild and uninhibited, Exploding Hearts careened across the landscape of American music like a teenager in a recycling bin on top of a skateboard flying downhill.

Masonites from the mid ‘90s will know what I’m talking about.

Exploding Hearts harnessed the four rebels’ iconoclastic energy and created a collection of ten songs that feels as vital today as it was when it was released more than a decade ago. Listening to Guitar Romantic, their 2003 album, is an adventure in swagger, performance, and poetry.

As critic Chris Deville wrote, Guitar Romantic was filled with “sterling songs executed with unimaginable vitality, and every song on this album was a walk-off home run followed by a raging kegger.” Rock and Roll.

Guitar Romantic was (and is) a fantastic album and stands as magical musical legacy for this quartet of Masonites. It’s a reminder of the energy and artistry of a wildly talented and creatively fearless young band.

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So many years later, it’s cool to realize that these shooting stars of rock and roll roamed the same hallways here at ACMA, then C.E. Mason, that classical legend Morten Lauridsen did back in the 1950s. Music takes so many forms, various and inspiring.

But then, as stories sometimes do, things turned tragic.

The most moving version of this part of the story that I’ve heard comes from another former A&C student, Lisa, who captured her memories of the band, the people, and the accident that ended the lives of three of the four band members in 2003. Anyone interested in our school’s story owes it to themself to check out Lisa’s essay, “Shatter My Heart.” Try not to cry. I couldn’t.

Every morning we begin the day at ACMA with music played through the school rather than a first bell. Tomorrow morning the song selection will be from Guitar Romantic.


What happens when an artist splashes the wrong color on a painting, or the sculptor watches her armature buckle under the weight of the clay?

They recover, blot up the paint, pick up the pieces, and get about making art.

Jazz musicians don’t stop when a trumpet misses the note, or the piano drops a phrase. They can’t. Their art compels them. When the song goes kittywampus and the audience is in that free fall of uncertainty, what is it that the best musicians do?

Lean into it.

And those actors over in the theatre, what is it they say when they’re improvising?

They say: Yes, and…

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As the 20th century disappeared, the world starting to worry about the Y2K bug and listening to Prince’s ode to 1999, life at Arts & Communication Magnet Academy shifted gears. Was it different than it had been before? Yes, and…      

After the changes: staff, policy, and vision, school opened in the fall.

Beneath the circular portico, from which the words “C.E. Mason” had been removed, life kept going at Arts & Communication Magnet Academy. Students painted and drew, made music, made art, and began to dance.

“That first year was rough,” remembered Judy Chown, who came to ACMA as a staff member in 1998. “The District wanted a magnet school but that was not communicated clearly to the parents and staff. The staff was upset, and some left at the end of that year. The parents were upset and the students were upset. We began a PTA that year and the meetings sometimes had 200 angry parents shouting at the principal, unhappy with the perceived changes. There were some wonderful parts to the old; the sense of security and community, art as a focus, but the old A&C needed a makeover, and we took on the challenge with a vengeance.”

While the ACMA staff set about creating a mission statement — a challenge that led some to walk out of the initial staff meetings and later the school itself, branding the school, and articulating its arts focus, the students at ACMA did what they did best: create. Pushing up against the world, students embraced their free spirited sense of adventure and made art.

Look in The Savant, ACMA’s new school newspaper, and you’ll find a two page spread on the music scene at “our own Rock and Roll High School.” Cataloguing student bands, including the band-hopping intrigue of talented student musicians, the article ends with the line: “Are you surprised at the amount of talent your high school has? You shouldn’t be. Have pride and respect for your Rock and Roll High School. There is no other quite like it.”

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There certainly was no other place quite like it; ACMA was not a comprehensive high school, and proudly so. As Amelia Romaine, the editor of the 2001 yearbook, wrote: “To say that you go to a school that’s out of the ordinary shows you really care about what you are doing with your education. You’ve taken the next step to show you will not be pushed around and that you value your personal voice.”

Students were finding ways for their voices to be heard at this changing school. Things were different than they had been, but as Shanyelle King said at the time: “It’s not the rules that make this school great, or the amount of money that’s in the budget. What makes this school great is the people who walk down the halls every day; the teachers who don’t mind taking a few minutes away from their energy packed lectures to inspire you; the students who support and inspire one another. This school’s spirit isn’t necessarily about football teams and pep rallies, it’s about people caring about each other and creating an environment in which the students and teachers care enough to want to show up.”

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 8.22.03 amOne of the fundamental changes in the opening years of the 21st century was the emergence of dance at ACMA, and Dance West in particular. Over the years few programs have matched this pre-professional company, which has launched students to dynamic professional lives of dance.

This addition of more performing arts broadened ACMA’s creative world, with vocal music, orchestra, and theatre filling the Quonset Hut with artistic energy. For more than a decade this unconventional space would see performances wild and unexpected, polished and professional, serious and sometimes nutty.

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 8.54.53 amTo reflect that expanded artistic landscape, ACMA went in search of a logo. Peter Han, now a professional artist and then a painter with as clear an artistic vision as community mindset, listened to the comments of a student volunteer group. “The next morning, he met me at my office door at 7:30 a.m.” Judy Chown remembers “and said. ‘Is this what you had in mind?’ He had drawn the new logo that we used for around 8 years.”

Student ownership, even as adults made changes prompted by budget and bureaucracy, was very real at ACMA. As the 2003 budget crisis threatened to shutter the district’s arts academy, and, as Judy Chown remembers, “from November through the end of the year, teachers, administration, staff, and students testified and made passionate pleas before the school board in order to save our program,” students made art.

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Drawing, painting, sculpting, ACMA students brought technicolor creativity to a world of black and white. Looking back at the canvases and into the sketchbooks of the early 2000s reminds us that the world through teenage eyes looks different than it does to those over thirty.

Peter Han did more than logos, capturing his teachers in a Star Wars mashup. Yambo as Yoda? Check. Obi-Wan Tateoka? Yep. Kevin Bennett as an Ewok? But of course.

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Kara Kerpan remembers “shadowing for a day as an 8th grader to decide if ACMA was the school for me. I was instantly sold when I saw people playing music in the hallways. I also loved that there was a slew of ‘greaser’ guys with slicked back hair!” Hardly strictly domesticated.

Later, as a student, she told me that “my friends and I had a disagreement over dress code and free expression with the principal and it was featured in the Oregonian. Then there was the field trip to the ape caves that left all the students soaking wet and giddy on a long bus ride back to Beaverton. That school really embraced us ‘weirdos’ and gave us a place to be creative and thrive.”

And, inexplicably, there were accordions. So very ACMA.

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 8.18.39 amBy the time in 2003 that ACMA added 6th graders to the student body, it had truly become a magnet, not alternative school, and inside the students carried with them the marvelously, unapologetic “weirdo” DNA of those early pioneers who had called C.E. Mason home. Many of those first students had graduated or were gone, their passing lamented by current students who had shared (or heard stories about) the early years of the school, but their legacy lived on, sometimes openly and sometimes, as that article about rock and roll suggested, “underground.”

Students had always made their own way, and now they were moving into the 21st century with the creative, sometimes rebellious, and improvisational attitude of Yes, and…

Enter HAMLET, reading

POLONIUS: Do you know me, my lord?
HAMLET: Excellent well; you are a fishmonger.

Two students spotted it, a fish tucked inside the plexiglass of our reader board out front. Incongruous, unexpected, and quite, quite dead, the fish looked out at them from beneath an advertisement for the upcoming production of Hamlet. I don’t know if that fish was in any way a reference to the play, but I like to imagine that whoever put it there had the fishmonger line in mind when she did. As a principal, believing the best in everyone, even misbehaving fishmongers, should be part of the job description.


Being an educator means being ready for anything. Good surprises (our thespians qualified for state, one of our jazz musicians just released an album, our filmmakers just won a slew of prizes at the district film festival), bad surprises (a burst pipe, road construction out front during registration day, a car accident in the parking lot), and sometimes a dead fish.

Those of us who have made a career of education bring to our work the flexibility to handle any of those, preferably with a smile.

I shared a photo of the dead fish in the reader board with some friends who are administrators in other schools. Kindred spirits, I knew they’d smile at this bit of the unexpected on my campus as I’ve smiled at odds and ends they’ve sent my way. Connections with fellow administrators, both far and near, is an important ingredient in the life of a principal or assistant principal.

Because as a school administrator the news isn’t always good. Budgets constrict. Students, and sometimes adults, make poor choices. The stresses of the world seep into the work we do on campus. We do our best to help our ships sail straight, but rough weather is a constant in the principal’s office. Waves of budget, winds of school safety, and navigating the storms sometimes means you find yourself with a stray fish on the boat. Or in the reader board.

All that said, my favorite part of our recent fish, was that when the miscreants left us the fish, they also left a box with latex gloves to make clean up easier. Thoughtful, even if a little fishy.

Thoughtful, and inspiring in its own way. Later in the week the two students who’d spotted the fish came into my office to ask if I’d play a role in their movie “Two Girls and a Fish.” Inspired by the zaniness of our wayward shad, they’d put together a playful short that tried to capture a mischievous sense of fun. What better result of a prank than inspiring art. So very ACMA.

Now I’m not encouraging more out of place seafood on campus; even with gloves that fish smelled worse than anyone should have to smell on a Monday, but I do appreciate the opportunity to laugh at the unexpected, be reminded that life is anything but predictable, and revel in creation of art.

This is the end…

My goal in sharing some Arts & Communication history has never been to write either a hagiography or exposé, but rather to capture a little bit of what the school was like in years gone by. That means digging into old boxes buried in storage, reaching out to former students and staff to ask questions, and following leads wherever they go in search of stories worth telling. It also means hearing voices that don’t only walk on the sunny side of the street. It means embracing our school’s identity as a place of artists and divergent thinkers (certainly) and also rebels and hippies and scruffy headed nerf herders.

The late 1990s saw big changes at our little school, and to do that time justice it’s important to look not only at the official history. After all, it was an ACMA grad who told me: “ ACMA taught me that history is propaganda.” Perhaps it is.

This modest collection of memories is far from comprehensive. For every story I’m able to share another hundred swirl in the collective memory of past students and staff. Some of those stories are far richer and more complete than any I’ve told or will tell, and I think that’s okay too.

It doesn’t mean that I won’t keep chasing stories, sharing those I can, and doing my best to be, as Shakespeare called it, “a cipher to this great accompt.” That said, I know I can’t do it alone.

Another former A&C student wrote to me to share his memories from the fall of 1999, prefacing his story with these words: “this is my experience, and an unspoken history that most don’t remember and if they do, they probably gloss it over. Here it is…”

And so, to my Masonites and ACMAaniacs, here is another view of our school, circa 1999…


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Right now I see how quickly all of the things that have made C.E. so admirable are diminishing. There are moments when I walk down the hall and feel like a stranger at a school that I’ve felt at home in for four years. It’s as though the halls don’t want to keep me in their arms anymore, they only want to push me through. After all, it is not the halls that made our school what it is, but the incredible people inside them. Now many of those people are gone, and those still here are lagged down with the same feeling, and have little energy to hold on. This energy has been the life force behind our school from the beginning. Without it, it is doomed for failure, no matter what form it may take in the years to come. There is no question in my mind that the spirit of C.E. Mason is on its last legs. This friend that we all have grown so close to is dying.”     -Ellen Greer, 1998-1999 Arts & Communication High School Yearbook.

Arts & Communication started as a big idea. Creativity, art, freedom, these were the watchwords of the founding mothers and fathers, the students and staff who took up residence in the sturdy building that had once been C.E. Mason Elementary. In these wainscoted hallways, in the Quonset Hut that had been a gym before it was a theatre, and in the converted classrooms that had once taught reading and writing to the postwar youth of Beaverton, this intrepid group of adventurers slashed a trail through the overgrown jungle of possibility.

Then, not yet ten years in, changes came to C.E. Mason that felt to some like clear cutting had come to the rainforest.

“Magnet Academy” got added to “Arts & Communication” and with it came policy changes about maintaining a specific grade point average, auditioning to get in, and more.

screen shot 2019-01-07 at 1.19.02 pmSome things looked the same; students still made music, wrote poetry, and shot and edited their own films. Sculpture, painting, and drawing mattered much, and if you were looking for the school with the most young novelists, A&C was the place, but the silly mug shots weren’t quite as silly as some years past, you’ll find no poetry or student cartoons in the 1998-1999 yearbook. At one point in the year the readerboard out in front of the school read: ARTS + COMMUNICATION = ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE.

One student from the time called it the “domestication” of Arts & Communication. Others chose words that wouldn’t be reprinted in a family newspaper.

There was still a spirit of iconoclasm in the students and some of the staff. Tim, who graduated in 1998 remembered his final day at A&C:

“As was tradition, light hearted pranks on favorite teachers occurred with regularity during this final week. We had been warned to keep it light and safe and to not damage the building or people, but very few of us heeded the warning. On our final day, a small band of A&C warriors hatched a plan to prank Orestes Yambouranis.”

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“What had to have been a months’ worth of paper towels and toilet paper were pilfered from the custodian. The group then proceeded to TP the entirety of Yambo’s room. Every light fixture, every window, and surface that could be covered in paper…was. The effect was otherworldly, creating a disorienting effect with ropes of paper towels hanging like vines from the ceiling. I’ll never forget the reaction we got from Yambo. A momentary flash of shock, and then utter boyish glee “It’s better than snow!” he exclaimed as the whirled through the maze of paper screens pulling them down on top of himself.”

As Tim told me this fall, “this simple send off prank typifies my experience at A&C, with staff and students often experiencing moments of shock that quickly were replaced with glee.”

Some, it seems, stayed shocked.

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Talking with students from the late 1990s is an experience in torn hearts and raw emotion. Even years later, for many their memories of school are complicated and understandably sad.

I had coffee with Peter, whose student film made it in an earlier post in this little history. He remembered the school-altering change that occurred when a new policy required all students to retain a 2.0 grade average or be told to leave the school. Students who fell below a 2.0 received a letter informing them that they were no longer allowed to stay at Arts & Communication High School. It was a sea change from the earliest days of A&C, a shift that left many reeling.

Peter captured his experience in his heartbreaking essay The Day I Crucified Myself, a reminder to any of us in education just how much our actions matter to those students who make up our schools.

And Peter wasn’t alone.

Lisa left A&C around the same time as Peter, on to pursuits of her own beyond the walls of C.E. Mason. Looking back now on the time now, a creative adult whose life has transcended any teenaged experience, there was a smile in her words as she told me “What a brilliant assembly of creative degenerates we were!”

When the school opened in 1992, as one early staff member said, the only students who were daring enough to come to A&C were kids who’d gotten Ds or Fs. Now they weren’t allowed to stay.

It reminded some of that Doors song:

Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I’ll never look into your eyes again”

The end.

For some students, like Peter, the end was all too real. For some, like yearbook editor Ellen, the end came with graduation and the lingering fear that “all those like me who need a school like this” may “fail because they never had a chance to succeed.”

A couple of student filmmakers made a video eulogy, an Ode to C.E. Mason …to the tune of Johnny Cash’s San Quentin.

For a generation of C.E. Masonites, something special was over.


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Don’t Boycott Trader Joe’s

This summer, on the same day a man with a gun took over a Trader Joe’s in Los Angeles, a family friend asked me what I thought about parents keeping their kids home on the first day of school in protest of school shootings.

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I understood her frustration. Parents want and expect their kids to be safe at school. Educators want that too.

Teachers, counselors, secretaries, custodians, aides, and administrators, we all want to protect our students and keep our schools the safe places we know they should be. To that end, we do what we can to develop protocols (locked doors, safety plans, ID badges), vigilant attitudes, and prepared schools. We get to know our students, listen to them, and support them.

When we hear scary rumors or are told about a threatening posting online, we act right away. We’re friends with police and know that law enforcement is a partner in our efforts to keep everyone safe.

It’s because of this that I told that family friend that the school probably isn’t her target audience in any action around gun violence. Keeping students home is a big deal, and her motivation behind it is both justified and real, but it isn’t educators who need to be shaken by the lapels and told to change the situation.

When kids walk out or stay home, schools work very, very hard to handle the situation in a way that is both safe and respectful. We’re not, however, often in a position to make the kind of changes those protesting would like to see, and lawmakers, those determining funding for mental health and the availability of weapons, may not be directly impacted by students staying home.

Work with educators, sure. Parents, students, teachers, and administrators can all benefit from joining in real conversations about safety, but the answer to this difficult reality doesn’t rest entirely on schools.

Ask Trader Joe.

That isn’t to say that principals like me don’t want to engage in the important work of keeping students (and staff too) safe. Every year many of us go out of our way to learn more, discussing the issues with our school resource officers, attending conferences, and finding out more about what we can do.

Two books that have helped me understand the horrible reality of school shootings are Columbine by Dave Cullen and Rampage by Katherine Newman.

columbineColumbine traces the events and personalities that led up to the 1999 mass shooting at a high school in Colorado. The book takes time to explore the lives of the two shooters as well as many of the victims, students, school personnel, and law enforcement. By not simply focusing on the event itself, but going back to better understand the context of what happened and the aftermath as well, the book helped me understand this horrific shooting in a way that the media at the time, so hungry for quick answers and rationale that conclusions were easy to jump to, didn’t. Before I started Columbine, I thought I knew what had happened and imagined I knew a bit of they “why,” but as I read more I realized the immensity of the problem and got a much clearer sense of how these two teens got guns, formulated their plan, and carried out what Cullen describes as an act of domestic terrorism.

Cullen’s thorough research, his attention to detail and care for his subject matter makes Columbine an important, though not easy, read. While much has changed in the two decades since the tragedy, the book left me with a greater appreciation for the complexity of the situation and a better understanding of some of the factors that can lead up to an act of violence like this one.

Rampage takes understanding the social context of school violence as its starting point, and Katherine Newman (and a staff of four graduate students: Cybelle Fox, David J. Harding, Jal Mehta, and Wendy Roth) brings a thoughtful and thorough approach to analyzing two terrible events, a 1997 shooting at a Kentucky high school and a gun attack by two Arkansas middle schoolers in 1998.

Rampage CoverNewman et al. do their best to understand the events through the lens of the societies around them, including school and community forces, cultural pressures, and the reality of adolescence.

The book brings a sociologist’s perspective to the complex issue of school shootings, and the result is both thought provoking and revealing.

Taken together, Columbine and Rampage have given me better perspective about the problem and some sense of how I might use my role as an educator to work toward creating a school community that is proactive and purposeful in what we do to support all students.

Knowing that gun violence on school campuses is an ongoing concern is a sobering part of being an educator at the start of the 21st century. When I started teaching, years before the violence described in Columbine or either of the cases addressed in Rampage, I never thought about someone bringing a gun to school. I thought about teaching, about creating community in my classroom, and contributing to a positive school environment.

Just a couple of years ago my wife asked me if I was ever afraid to go to work.

How times have changed, and schools with them.

But the truth is that I’m not afraid to go to work. Schools are still some of the safest places on the planet, and as educators we’re committed to keeping them that way.

I recognize that our world, certainly our country, has changed since I was a young teacher, but despite those changes I firmly believe that the best thing I can do is go to school every day thinking about teaching, about creating community in my classroom, and contributing to a positive school environment.

Old truths win out. So does good, I believe, though it often needs help from some of us.

Back to that issue of civic engagement that prompted our family friend to question having her student sit out the first day. If I were a wiser person I would have had the presence of mind to offer those book suggestions, the addresses of lawmakers, and the invitation to collaborate with other parents to raise the discussion beyond the schoolhouse walls.

But I recognize that in addition to making a broader statement, sometimes parents and even students, feel compelled to stay home out of fear, not politics. Whether prompted by national events or more local rumors or threats, in the greater context of our current world, I understand how this response makes sense.

Too often educators like me don’t have all the information we wish we did, information that we could share with parents, students, and staff that would help assure our school community that things are safe. Whether this is because such information is still with the police, or that it simply doesn’t exist, makes no difference; we, who want so much to be strong and steady voices of comfort and assurance, feel as frustrated as those we serve. And then we go to work.

We go to our classrooms and offices, vigilant as always, trusting that the police who have final say over lockouts and lockdowns (and all those scary words that have become a part of the 21st century education lexicon) have our best interests at heart. We arrive on campus, greet our students, and do our best.

In those situations that rattle our communities, educators like me look for our own inner Atticus. We don’t lie, or make promises we can’t keep. At our best, we don’t panic or fan the flames of worry, but strive to live up to that line from To Kill a Mockingbird: “You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ’em get your goat. Try fightin’ with your head.”

It seems to me that “fightin’ with our heads” means educating ourselves, connecting with each other, and raising our voices to those who can make a difference. Parents, students, educators, I believe we all want the safest schools we can have. Police, lawmakers, they too want a world where students can go to school, and citizens can go shopping, to worship, and about their daily lives in safety.

The world can be uncertain and things happen that justifiably raise our concerns, whether at school or the grocery store. Combating this is best done with our heads, hearts, and the allies all around us.

“Be bold and creative and unique”

Kreeya attended Arts & Communication High School from 1995 to 1998. She was in Mr. Bennett’s and then Mrs. Von Bergen’s Ohana, and remembers the school offering video production, creative writing, publications, printmaking, painting, ceramics, Japanese, Spanish, horticulture, and photography. “I hesitate to mention just how little math and science (which were only offered as electives) I received during those years,” she recalls. “Those were experimental times, after all.”

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But even more than the classes offered, A&C was defined by its culture, and Kreeya explained that “once in, it was easy to find oneself in something of a culture shock. At Arts & Communications High School it was normal routine to see students sprawled in the hallways with sketch books, teachers and students engaged in conversation about current affairs, and groups of teenagers with colorful hair, unlikely piercings, and counterculture fashion mingling in the student lounge. It was the late 90’s. Teenagers were finding their subcultures. There were ravers and industrial kids. Goths and punks. There were people who wore capes and those who spent their days devoted to artistic pursuits.”

Those artistic pursuits yielded profound results, both in terms of art and artists. Students would leave A&C and go on to be professional musicians, artists, teachers, and activists. They would go into politics and theatre, social work and fashion. The adults they would become, engaged, creative, and passionate about their pursuits, were forged at least in part by their time in school, when as they created art, students at C.E. Mason created their community.

screen shot 2018-11-30 at 10.25.30 am“What we didn’t have in academics, we made up for in social and emotional education,” Kreeya explained. “It was in high school that I first saw democracy in action. I felt the power of giving people a voice, even if no action could be taken. I felt valued in the community, like I could make a difference just by being there. Students were allowed to take risks and make mistakes. Often our teachers were closer to us than parents and were able to give the kind of guidance we needed in the moment. We had monthly all-school ‘Town Hall’ meetings where students aired grievances and offered suggestions. We painted murals to make our environment reflect our interests and sense of humor.”

IMG_7358Those murals still look down on ACMA students, and that spirit of community, those connections between students and staff, and that attitude that invites risks and mistakes are alive and well. More than most places, ACMA welcomes those students still finding themselves, as the founding mothers and fathers did in the 1990s. The care and connection those students brought to our school has lasted longer than any individual faculty member, any administration, or any policy at ACMA. The foundation of respect, acceptance, and understanding of the power of art is as solid now as it was then.

This winter Kreeya told me that long after graduation she “was approached by a mutual friend who graduated from AMCA in 2001. He pulled me aside and thanked me and our generation of students. He said that we had set a standard for what it meant to be treated with respect as a student. He said that those early years inspired other classes of learners to be bold and creative and unique. He mentioned how powerful it was to walk down the same halls, following a well worn path of youthful artistic expression. Those earliest years helped all that followed visualize an artist identity. It made it seem attainable. Now just about 25 years later, that history of success in the creative fields is ingrained in the culture of the school and I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of that.”

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All those students, from the 90s, the 2000s, and beyond should feel proud of the contributions they made. The way hasn’t always been easy (the next couple of posts will be a nod to that, so hang on tight if you like the happy parts of stories, I promise it will all come around in the end), and the path to where ACMA is today is certainly full of bends and switchbacks, hills and obstacles, but thanks to the compass created by these early students, with a true north that points toward what matters most, the journey continues to move in the right direction.

screen shot 2018-12-03 at 9.32.19 am“Some years after high school,” Kreeya told me “Mrs. Von Bergen came into the sandwich shop I worked at. ‘That school was a moment in time,’ she said as she rounded out her greeting.”

Indeed it was, and even more, it was the start of something bold and creative and unique.

Transitions and Traditions

Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all a patter and a pitter.”    – JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit

We’re moving this year. Every program, every classroom, every teacher, every student, we’ll spend the winter going through old things, the spring packing, and the summer relocating eleven minutes up the road to our temporary digs in an enormous middle school building that has served as a home to a series of schools under construction and has yet to open itself. That’s a role our own campus played back in the 1970s, and as we cash in that good karma some folks are a little nervous.


Like Bilbo in Tolkien’s epic, we’re challenged to lift our little swords, allow our hearts to pitter patter, and go forward. But read that opening quotation again and you’ll notice that as he does,  that intrepid Hobbit keeps one hand on the wall, feeling his way through the darkness with the help of a familiar support.

For us, that familiar wall is the C.E. Mason Elementary building that has been home to Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, and Arts & Communication High School before that, ever since our school has been in existence.

Over the past quarter century students have been making art and making meaning in the same classrooms, making friends and making mischief in the same hallways, and making a difference in a thousand different ways after graduating from our little school.

The memories that saturate our walls are as much a part of the building as the murals students have painted on the plaster over the years. The wainscoting hums with stories; the gallery of Mona Lisas look down with enigmatic smiles; and in the courtyard the echoes of decades old laughter  mingle with the shouts of our current students and their almost daily games of Sharks and Minnows.


Even as the wrecking balls roll onto campus this summer, we’re keeping some of the wainscoting to use for our reception area in the front office of the new building and the circulation desk in the new library. The murals invite a variety of approaches, as we capture images of the paintings that we can take with us and devise ways to honor their spirit, even as 1940s building materials mean we can’t pull the walls out intact. And as we trundle our traditions into the metaphoric bindlestiff we’ll sling over our shoulder in July, we’re also wise to keep a space (both physically and spiritually) for the murals still to be painted on the walls of a building that doesn’t yet exist.

20170930_110547Michelle Young, Saul Roberts, and all the many names signed beneath the student artwork from years gone by will be joined in our school’s history by new names, some current students, some newborns today who will be painting on the walls of an ACMA campus when they graduate in 2037.

That campus hasn’t yet been built, but it will be, and when it is those walls will hold stories as rich as the memories already made in our current home.

Memories from former students like…

Kristen, who told me about the weekend of the junior/senior prom when her Ohana spent the night in the school. “Our group of about twelve people met up at an Italian restaurant in Beaverton — Giovanni’s.  From there, those of us with cars headed to the high school (some people walked), with Mr. Yambouranis chaperoning us. The boys were to stay in the library; the girls in the Ohana classroom, which was the one at the far end of the building, across from the drinking fountain that had a mural of tiles and the office. Of course, no one really followed those rules!  We used the TVs and Laserdiscs to watch a bunch of film, including The Goonies, Rock & Roll High School, and the “new” episodes of “The Simpsons” and “The X-Files” that aired on Fox.  Yambo retired for the night in the nurse’s office near midnight.” I can see the smile on her face as she recalled the adventure: “Several of us did some exploring.”

Spencer, who remembered “Mr. Sikking feverishly describing philosophy and the hero’s journey as he asked questions and then ran to overhead to underline the point 3 or 4 times.” And once, “after we had reached some sort of fundraising goal for the school, Mr. Sikking performed Santa Baby in a sexy Mrs. Claus neglige on stage for the whole school.” It was, he remembered, “one of the most ACMA things that comes to mind.”

And Lily, who, when talking about things being so “very ACMA,” told the audience at her graduation that it would be impossible to look back on “Cooper and Will’s concert ­light­show or Brock’s amazing film about cannibalism without feeling like this place is at least a little bit different. I remember hanging cellos up on the curtain rail in Mr. Brandau’s room, scream­ singing “Africa” by Toto at karaoke night, and making a film about a plastic lawn coyote.” So very much in keeping with the spirit of our school.

IMG_9676These stories won’t disappear when the bulldozers arrive in July. As the Quonset Hut that has served as gym and cafeteria, and performance hall is knocked to the ground; the basement that has been a cafeteria, counseling office, day care, and television studio is filled in; and the portables that have been the epicenter of more art, movies, music, and dance than any portables in the history of the world are carted away, the memories will be as alive as they have always been.

Our school is magical not because of the walls we touch as we lift our little swords and move forward; our school is magical because of the people who inhabit it: those whose daily life on campus was years ago, those who call it home today, and those whose paths will lead our way in the decades to come.

A friend who recently retired from ACMA had told me that she isn’t sure if the new building will ever feel to her like home. It’s an honest response to a big transition, and one that I know is echoed in other hearts as well. “I’m willing to keep an open mind,” she tells me, “but…”

There is a world of worry in that ellipses.

There is also an opportunity. I keep her, and all those creative, sensitive, and fantastic souls of students and staff no longer on campus in mind as I do my best to honor the spirit of our school as we embark on this transition. Knowing that to go back is “No good at all!” To “Go sideways? Impossible!” Going forward is the only thing to do, and we will do so mindfully, courageously, and with a clear sense of who we are.

Bilbo Baggins was not defined by his time in the Shire; he left for adventures, whether he thought himself ready or not, and while he brought himself and his history to every step along the path, he returned to his home in the hill richer and more creative than he could have imagined.

Our school is no less than that adventurous Hobbit.


I believe that my retired friend will step into the new building that opens in the fall of 2021 and know that this is home, not because of the wainscoting repurposed for the front desk or familiar student artwork in the hallways, but because of the spirit of our school —creative, kind, and accepting— that is as true on our current campus as it would be if we held classes in a circus tent, on a cruise ship, or at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

We’ll be no place as exotic for the next two years, but the creativity and curiosity we bring with us to that big empty building on 118th Street will make it feel as if it were.

hobbitAnd then, in August of 2021, we’ll move back. Back to building constructed to be an art school, a structure that honors our school’s past while looking toward its future. There will be familiar faces (Mona Lisa, David Bowie, Leonidas), and plenty of new faces as well. And as we start making art and making meaning, making friends and maybe a little mischief, our new space will (over time) begin feeling simply like our space.

Some will say it’s an aspirational sentiment, but I honestly believe that the next few years will be an adventure that can share the same subtitle as Tolkien’s Hobbit, living up to the reassuring and very real words: “There and back again.”